25 - 31 July 2002
Issue No. 596
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A president for all peopleIndia's new president, a Muslim missile scientist, is an unusual man who manages to be all things to all people, writes Mukul Devichand
Finding a single person to be "head of state" in India -- a ceremonial representative for the aspirations of over a billion souls -- is an arduous task. The long search ended yesterday when a long- haired south-Indian missile scientist was given the keys to the 350-room presidential palace.
AJP Abdul-Kalam, the new incumbent of New Delhi's imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan, is a vegetarian Muslim bachelor in his seventies who often quotes from both the Muslim and Hindu scriptures. He helped make India a nuclear power, writes poetry and is known for his defiantly casual dress-sense, complete with the flip-flop sandals -- or chappals -- that are the trademark footwear of India's rural and urban poor.
In the end, Abdul-Kalam received almost 90 per cent of the votes cast by India's 5,000-strong "electoral college", the system by which MPs and legislators from both state and central governments indirectly elect their president. The only competition came from the Left but 87- year-old feminist Lakshmi Sahgal, left high and dry with a mere 10 per cent of the ballot.
"A second vision is now necessary to transform India into a developed country," said a grinning Abdul-Kalam upon being told of his victory.
Abdul-Kalam was in many ways a consensus candidate for the largely ceremonial role of president -- backed by both the BJP-led government and by the opposition Congress and Samajwadi parties. What has astounded outside observers, though, is that this Muslim scientist was first nominated by India's Hindu- nationalist ruling coalition itself rather than by secularist or pluralist groups.
For Indians, this is less surprising. India's list of its last eleven presidents reads like a compendium of minority groups: Muslims, Sikhs and non-Hindi speakers. Moreover, the political establishment has been content to consider the president's role as being apolitical -- more like Britain's queen than France's president -- despite having the power to select the government and directly rule crisis-ridden areas of the country.
Even Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf welcomed Abdul-Kalam's election. But in fact, Abdul-Kalam's own nationalist credentials are more solid than his religion might suggest to outsiders. His eccentricities -- his scruffy dress sense for one -- speak volumes about his humble origins that forms, for many Indians, a big part of his appeal.
The son of a fisherman from the southern town of Rameshwaram, Abdul- Kalam rose through Indian (notably, not foreign) universities to head the national missile programme and was instrumental in overseeing India's hugely popular nuclear tests.
What is more, he is defiantly proud of it. "India must stand up to the world," he said recently in Hyderabad, in a speech that has since become an Internet hit and been circulated by young Indians over e- mail. "Because I believe that unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. Only strength respects strength." Working on the nuclear missiles programme was a "third bliss" in his life, he added.
Abdul-Kalam is reportedly a devout Muslim, a teetotaller who prays regularly and lives simply -- which will satisfy calls for the Indian government to send out more inclusive signals to India's 140-million Muslims. It is a sensitive time for India's third Muslim president to start his five-year term, so soon after communal violence ripped through Gujurat state earlier this year and up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were massacred. Abdul-Kalam's first challenge will be to deal with calls from the opposition congress party this week that Gujurat be placed under direct presidential rule.
But he is also sufficiently belligerently patriotic to satisfy most of India's powerful Hindu-nationalist groups who laud him for embracing vegetarianism and his ability to quote from Hindu scriptures just as well as he can from the Qur'an. His status as the architect of India's missile programme has made him friends in all parts of the Sangh Parivar -- the ideological movement of Hindu nationalism -- including the most extreme militant group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Abdul-Kalam's message also has resonance in the mainstream of a country in which the "lower middle classes" -- of which the new president himself can safely claim membership -- are clamouring for wealth and development.
Among this aspiring middle class, Abdul-Kalam's message strikes the right chords. "You wouldn't dare to eat in public during Ramadan, in Dubai," he admonished the Indian public in his Hyderabad speech. "You would not dare to go out without your head covered in Jeddah... You would not dare to speed beyond 55 mph in Washington and then tell the traffic cop, 'Do you know who I am? I am so and so's son. Take your two bucks and get lost.' Why don't you spit Paan on the streets of Tokyo? Why don't you use examination jockeys or buy fake certificates in Boston? We are still talking of the same you. You who can respect and conform to a foreign system in other countries but cannot in your own."
Later he adds: "When it comes to us actually making a positive contribution to the system, we lock ourselves along with our families into a safe cocoon and look into the distance at faraway countries and wait for a Mr Clean to come along and work miracles for us with a majestic sweep of his hand. Or we leave the country and run away. Like lazy cowards hounded by our fears we run to America to bask in their glory and praise their system."
In this developing country, it is such rhetoric -- whether coming from Muslim scientist or anyone else -- that sways the masses. APJ Abdul-Kalam -- long hair, flip-flops and all -- has, despite his political inexperience, already made himself the archetypal "all things to all people" that India's non-political presidency demands. Whether he survives the tests of Hindu-Muslim violence and government-formation in the absence of a clear majority -- likely to be the case in next year's elections -- remains to be tested.
Letter from the Editor
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